A comparison was made of neurite growth across spinal cord lesions in the isolated central nervous system (CNS) of newborn opossums (Monodelphis domestica) at various stages of development. The aim was to define the critical period at which growth after injury ceases to occur, with emphasis on growth-inhibitory proteins, myelin and glial cells. In postnatal opossums 3-6 days old (P3-6), repair was observed 5 days after lesions were made in culture at the cervical level (C7) by crushing with forceps. Through-conduction of action potentials was re-established and axons stained by Dil grew into and beyond the crush. In a series of 66 animals 29 showed repair. In 28 animals at P11-12 with comparable lesions repair was observed in five preparations. At P13-14, the CNS was still viable in culture, but none of the 25 preparations examined showed any axonal growth into the crush or conduction through it. The rostro-caudal gradient of development permitted lesions to be made in mature cervical and immature lumbar regions of P11-12 spinal cord. Growth across crushes occurred in lumbar but not in cervical segments of the same preparation. The development of glial cells and myelin was assessed by electron microscopy and by staining with specific antibodies (Rip-1 and myelin-associated glycoprotein) in cervical segments of neonatal P6-14 opossums. At P8, oligodendrocytes and thin myelin sheaths started to appear followed at P9 by astrocytes stained with antibody against glial fibrillary acidic protein. By P14, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes and well-developed myelin sheaths were abundant. The cervical crush sites of P12 cords contained occasional astrocytes but no oligodendrocytes. Specific antibodies (IN-1) to neurite growth-inhibiting proteins (NI-35/250) associated with oligodendrocytes and myelin in the rat CNS cross-reacted with opossum proteins. Assays using the spreading of 3T3 fibroblasts and IN-1 showed that by P7 inhibitory proteins became apparent, particularly in the hindbrain and cervical spinal cord. The concentrations of NI-35/250 thereafter increased and became abundant in the adult opossum. Our finding of a well-defined critical period, encompassing only 5 days, in CNS preparations that can be maintained in culture offers advantages for analysing mechanisms that promote or prevent CNS repair.